Saturday, June 24, 2017

Off-Broadway Review: Bella, An American Tall Tale

Ashley D. Kelley (as Bella) & Brandon Gill. Photo: Joan Marcus
Bella: An American Tall Tale
Book, Music and Lyrcis by Kirsten Childs
Directed by Robert O'Hara
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
Playwrights Horizons
Through July 2

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
It's a tall tale, all right, told by a woman with a very large tail....  Kirsten Childs (The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin)  brings to life this fanciful story of Bella (Ashley D. Kelley), a 1870's African-American woman who heads west to join her pen-pal soldier boyfriend, Aloicious. She isn't just leaving town to pursue love, however. Something has happened with Lothario Plantation owner Bonny Johnny (Kevin Massey) and her mother (Kenita R. Miller) and aunt (Marinda Anderson) convince her to leave town and assume a new identity.

Along the way (the beautiful buffalo and Native-American-motiffed set is designed by Clint Ramos), she meets a host of characters with the help of a rotating stage (played by a strong ensemble rounded out by Yurel Echezarreta, Olli Haaskivi, Jo’Nathan Michael, Paolo Montalban, Gabrielle Reyes, Britton Smith and NaTasha Yvette Williams) and train porter Nathaniel Bekwith, who might just be the man of her dreams. Or is he a man of her dreams? Along the way, doubt creeps in to just how much of the story we are seeing is real or in the imagination of a girl with a very large behind who is forced to make her living as an attraction in the circus.

What Are the Highlights?
If the premise sounds a bit bizarre, it is, but it is very absorbing, thanks to sharp direction by Robert O'Hara (who directed the also-different Booty Candy at Playwrights Horizons) who blends storytelling, choreography (by Camille A. Brown) and the music by Childs, who also provides the vocal arrangements and lyrics. (Music Direction and additional arrangements are by Rona Siddiqui; Orchestrations are by Daryl Waters).

Childs reaches into American history and comes up with a whole new cast of characters: African Americans living in working in the west -- chapters left out of most school history textbooks. The playwright has created such a fascinating world, that I was surprised not to find a dramaturg's note in the program saying that the story was based on real-life people. They are in general, of course, but this story feels like it is the re-telling of a legend like the Robber Bridgroom -- also set close-by on the Natchez Trace. Bella evokes humor in the same kind of dark-fairytale dreamworld which I particularly enjoy.

What Are the Lowlights:
At two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission, the musical starts to wander and drag toward the end. Some editing (an a trimming of the some 30 musical numbers included) can fix this.

More Information:
Bella spins her tall tales at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., NYC through July 2.

Additional credits:
Costume Design by Dede M. Ayite, Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman, Sound Design by Lindsay Jones, Projection Design by Jeff Sugg, Hair, Wig and Makeup Design by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas. 

-- Suggestive moments

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York. Shifting from reviewing to producing, Yarger owns Gracewell Productions, which produced the Table Reading Series at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT. She trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run. She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She wrote reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She was a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice president and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (producer of the annual awards ceremony) and a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, serving as Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter. Yarger was a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2024 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women or people of a certain race are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide, or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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